Castle of the Week 86 – The Tower of London 1066-1272

Part of the remaining Roman wall

No-one knows when the name ‘Tower of London’ was first coined. It is, in fact, a castle made up of many towers, each with its own history and echoes of the past. The castle straggles along the northern bank of the River Thames on the eastern side of central London. The original Norman White Tower has been added to over the years by many other towers, walls and buildings and has been used as a fortress, a lookout point down the river, prison, palace, library, mint, armoury and now a museum and, despite the ravages of history and war, much of it still stands. Its story is an overview of the history of England since 1066.

The back of the White Tower

The earliest part of the castle is the White Tower (the central keep) built by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century. He started to build it within three months of his victory over the Anglo-Saxon King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings. London had been considered an important city since Roman times and he wanted to have a stronghold there which would, at the same time, dominate the city. His philosophy was to conquer, subdue and then colonise. He used the south-eastern corner of the Roman stone city walls, built by Claudius, and added a timber palisade fence and ditches up to 25 feet wide and 11 feet deep on the other two sides. Some small parts of the Roman walls are still visible. He then had stone brought to the enclosure and the tower (at that time called the Great Tower) was built. It was the first stone keep to be built in England and it was based on the castle palaces of his Normandy home. The walls were 15 feet thick and it was 90 feet high. It now contains the Chapel of St John where the future members of the Order of the Bath kept their vigil prior to being inducted into the order. It also contains an exhibition of arms and torture instruments.

The White Tower

The first recorded prisoner was incarcerated there in 1100 by Henry I. Bishop Flambard, the chief minister and Bishop of Durham under Henry’s brother (William II), was imprisoned for extortion and as a scapegoat for the previous king’s unpopularity. He was also the first prisoner to escape from the Tower. He used a rope, escaped to Normandy and eventually returned to become Bishop again. The castle continued to be used as a prison up until the 20th century. Some prisoners were confined in dank dark rooms in the towers, others had the use of apartments and servants.

Richard I (the Lionheart) spent most of his reign at the end of the 12th century in the Holy Land, fighting in the Crusades. Whilst he was away his Chancellor, the Bishop of Ely and Constable of the Tower of London, was left in charge of the country. He started to enlarge and strengthen the Tower, extending the Roman west wall along the river and another wall towards the north, creating an Outer Ward. He put a ditch outside the new walls and tried, unsuccessfully, to fill it from the Thames. The Wardrobe Tower was built on the site of a Roman tower where the monarch’s clothing, armour and equipment were stored. It was almost demolished in Charles II’s reign, with just a small piece of the wall remaining. He also built the Bell Tower; the bell it contained was rung at times of danger and immediately all drawbridges were raised, portcullises dropped and gates shut; now it’s rung in the evening to warn visitors that it’s time to leave.

The remains of the Wardrobe Tower

In 1191 Prince John (the King’s brother) confronted the Bishop, believing him to have taken too much power for himself. He set siege to the Tower and the Bishop surrendered after three days due to lack of provisions. The defences had held firm against his barrage, however. Prince John became the hapless King John, and made the Tower his home as he battled with his barons both verbally and, in 1216, militarily when some of them joined with Prince Louis of France to invade England. The Tower was handed over to the French by some of the rebel barons and it served as the French headquarters for a time. The war continued into his son’s (Henry III’s) reign but the French were finally defeated the next year at the Battle of Lincoln.

Henry III reigned for almost the entire 13th century and used his time wisely, reinforcing all the royal castles, particularly the Tower of London. Two towers were built on the river side of the castle: the Wakefield Tower, the second largest in the castle, contained Henry’s appartments and, starting in Edward I’s reign, was used to store state records and the Lanthorn Tower, named for the lantern which was placed on top at night as a guide for ships on the Thames.

Henry's curtain wall and the Brick, Bowyer & Flint Towers

He, too, had trouble with the barons and was forced to shelter in the Tower in 1236 and 1238 and this inspired his greatest addition: a huge new curtain wall enclosing the west, north and east sides which entailed pulling down most of the Roman wall. It doubled the size of the castle which now enclosed a neighbouring church, St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains). It had ten new towers – three strong corner towers – the Martin (used as a prison and to store the Crown Jewels between 1669 and 1841), Salt (initially residential, but known during Elizabeth I’s reign as a prison for Jesuits) and Devereux (purely defensive) and six others – the Middle (now the main entrance), Constable, Broad Arrow, Garden (home of noble prisoners, later renamed the Bloody Tower), Flint, Brick and Bowyer (named for the royal bowmaker who lived there). It was surrounded by a moat fed from the Thames, successfully this time. The Great Tower now became known as the White Tower after he whitewashed it.

Middle Tower

Prince Gruffydd of Wales was probably his most famous prisoner. He was incarcerated as a ‘guest’ in 1241 and fell 90 feet to his death in 1244 when trying to escape. Henry also built the Lion Tower to serve as the home of his private Zoo; foreign kings brought him exotic animals as gifts and it is known he had an elephant, lions and leopards and a polar bear which fished in the river.

The Tower of London 1272-1547
The Tower of London 1547-today